Food tech is heating up. With a global population set to grow to upwards of 9 billion in the next 30 years, technology is playing an increasingly important role in food production — but it’s not just the scale or method of production that will change.
As technology gives us more insight and control into how food affects our bodies, the way we think about food is changing as well.
I now work in the digital development field, but I started my career in food. I have over 15 years of experience in the hospitality industry, and I’ve managed, owned, and operated restaurants, nightclubs and bars all over the country. I’ve also worked with professional chefs, mixologists and suppliers, making this a particularly important topic for me.
Right now, the food industry is moving forward in a big way. Advances in genetic technology are reshaping our understanding of nutrition, and new capabilities in food science are reengineering artificial meat. But, as we’ll see, moving forward with food may mean returning to our past.
A Revolution In (Non)Meat
One of the biggest trends in the food tech space right now revolves around meat — or rather, the lack of it. Capitalizing on modern food science, a new crop of startups (some of them unicorns) are crafting never-seen-before food substitutes.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, the two largest players in the plant-based burger space, are leading this charge. Both companies have used new techniques in food science to design plant-based (vegan) patties that look, taste and feel like a beef burger.
The Genealogical Diet
This isn’t the only place where new science is changing the nature of food. While it’s still in its earliest phases, gene-based diets will be a major trend in the health space in the coming decade.
A number of new startups like Habit are offering a new approach to healthy eating that’s tailored to each person’s individual genetics. Customers take a DNA test to determine their genome, then get personalized diet advice based on how their body’s genetics respond to different foods.
As of now, the science here is still murky. But a 2015 study found that blood sugar levels varied greatly from person to person even in response to identical meals, suggesting that our response to nutrition does depend on individual factors like genetics or gut microbiomes. Our understanding of the human genome is in its infancy. As our knowledge and technical capabilities grow, my prediction is that gene-based diets will be commonplace.
But there’s another trend in food today that, at first glance, seems to run counter to the narrative. Increasingly, people aren’t relying solely on western science to define their diet. They’re looking back to food cultures that have existed for thousands of years.
A large part of this trend comes from what I see as a fundamental flaw in the linear reductionist approach to food — the view that food can be understood as the sum of discrete parts. So long as we get all those parts in our diet, we’re healthy. The linear reductionist view began with the discovery macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fat — by German chemist Justus von Liebig. But in the first half of the 20th century, food scientists discovered vitamins and minerals. And today, we’re still discovering an even more complex component of nutrition: phytochemicals and zoochemicals. There may be as many as 25,000 phytochemicals alone, and we’re only beginning to understand how they affect the body. But from what we do know, they seem to play vital roles in everything from reducing neuroinflammation to fighting cancer.
I cite these examples to point out a pattern. At each step in this chain, scientists discovered certain components of food and assumed that all people needed were these components. But down the line, they were proven wrong by the discovery of a new component. Nutrition may simply be more complicated than the sum of its parts.
Looking Backward, Looking Forward
In response to this, some food scientists are turning away from linear reductionism. In tandem, entrepreneurs are pioneering a different vision of health by returning to food cultures that have existed for millennia. Karuna, a whole-food juice line, is doing this by studying other food cultures to find little-known “superfood” ingredients like the Ashitaba plant, then blending them into health tonics rooted in ancient wisdom. Kefir, a cultured dairy drink that’s a staple in many European and Asian food cultures, is now a flagship product of Lifeway Foods.
There seems to be something to this. Ashitaba has long been called the “longevity plant” in its native Japan, and it’s long been an important part of ancient food culture. But science backs up this wisdom: research suggests some of its phytochemicals, particularly a type of flavonoid, promote longevity. Kefir contains probiotics, which may be critical to whole-body health according to a growing body of research.
The Future Is The Past
Food technology is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with food and changing our understanding of nutrition. In the coming years, we’ll see ever more realistic meat substitutes and a more personalized approach to nutrition that both capitalize on new technological capabilities to create better food options for everyone.
But when it comes to food, science may never be enough on its own. Nutrition may simply be too complex for us to fully understand, at least until some point far in the future.
That’s why no matter how far food technology advances, the food cultures and traditions we’ve developed over thousands of years may always need to play a role in our diet and the food we eat.
It may sound counterintuitive. But when it comes to food, the way forward might just be looking to our past.